Route 30, or the Columbia River Highway, was originally constructed in the early twentieth century as a more automobile-friendly alternative to the steep and winding route Oregon Trail wagon routes that bordered the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge. As the need to accommodate more vehicle traffic resulted in the eventual construction of interstate highway Route 84, forty miles of the highway were kept accessible to motorists as a historic scenic byway. Lucky for us.
The scenic byway begins at exit 17 on I-84, in 0the town of Troutdale. The drive begins through beautiful, winding roads that seem as though they would give way to spectacular fall foliage. The first landmarks are the Women’s Forum Overlook and the Crown Point Vista House, both of which offer beautiful views of the Columbia River up and down the gorge. We stopped at the latter, where there is a help desk armed with maps and a wealth of information about the area. You can also climb up to the top story of the Vista House for an even higher up view.
Then, the real fun begins. The Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area as a whole contains dozens of waterfalls in all shapes and sizes with an endless combination of trails to be followed. The arguably most famous falls, however, are the seven that are relatively accessible along Route 30, at least with somewhat short hikes from their respective parking areas. If you are in the area for an extended period of time, it seems like a great place to explore, but stopping to see at least some of these seven are the quintessential experience and will fill the better part of an afternoon on its own.
A rough map of the area and its major waterfalls can be found here, though the parking areas are right on Route 30 and can’t be missed. Horsetail Falls, Multnomah Falls, Shepperds Dell Falls and Wahkeena Falls can be visible from the road, but a short hike can get you different or better vantage points. The other falls typically require short hikes ranging from 0.1 mile to 1 mile for a quality view of them and are unfortunately not wheelchair accessible and can be a bit steep. If you are in good physical health though, they are easily manageable.
We were unfortunately unable to obtain a hard map of the trails surrounding each fall at the visitor’s desk, so we relied on the maps posted at each trailhead. I’d be lying if I said these maps were extremely clear and matched up with other information we had found online, but they got the job done. I’d also be lying if I said I kept track of which short trails we did, and which we didn’t, but should you visit yourself, it is not too hard to figure out.
The first waterfall we stopped at was Latourell Falls, a 249 foot beautiful example of a plunge waterfall, where the water plunges straight down without touching the bedrock behind it. You can see the different perspectives we got from different parts of the mile long trail we did.
Our next stop was Bridal Veil Falls, a 118 foot double tiered horsetail (meaning the water maintains some contact with rock).
One of my favorites were Wahkeena Falls, which stands at 242 feet and is multi-tiered. A short hike will take you so close to the bottom that we had to be careful the spray didn’t get the DSLR!
And then, the motherload – the most famous natural attraction in Oregon and you’ve probably seen it on an inspirational poster at some point. And rightfully so. The stunning Multnomah Falls plunges 620 feet, with a footbridge overlook in the center of it for onlookers to get some different perspectives, and you might say that it just adds to its charm. It truly is an impressive sight.
As I mentioned, these are just few of the most famous waterfalls in the area and there is so much more to explore, both along Route 30 and on the trails. For example, the 28-mile round trip scenic drive up Larch Mountain Road that offers 360 views and sightings of Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Rainier, Mt. Adams, Mt. Hood, AND Mt. Jefferson on clear days.would be a great addition to a day in the gorge should you have the chance (unlike we did). Hope you get to enjoy it one day!